You’re stressed. These days, it’s hard not to be.
And you know stress is bad for your heart, your mood, your sleep, probably even your relationships.
Well, here’s one more reason to focus on relaxing – to avoid these dangerous effects of stress on your brain.
From structural changes to emotional ones, the effects of stress on the brain are as life-changing as any other response to stress, yet people pay less attention to them.
Well, we’re going to shine a light on the effects of stress on your brain so that you can recognize what’s going on and, more importantly, how to change it!
1. Stress = stress. Chronic stress creates an overabundance of the stress hormone, cortisol. Your body is only set up to handle cortisol in relatively small amounts over a short period of time. When you’re flooded with cortisol instead, it negatively impacts your entire body and every system – including your brain. By some estimates, 90% of all doctors’ visits are linked to stress-related conditions.
2. Free radical attack. It’s difficult to explain exactly how, but too much cortisol leads directly to the creation of free radicals. The same free radicals you’re trying to counteract by getting enough antioxidants in your diet. And when free radicals attack your brain, they can actually puncture the cell walls, causing your brain cells to die.
3. Prevents new brain cells. Yes, even without free radical attack, everyone loses some brain cells naturally every day. But usually, new ones grow to replace them. However, an effect of stress on the brain is that new ones don’t grow. Again, it can be traced back to the excess of cortisol, and the end result is that fewer new brain cells are ever formed. Along these lines…
4. Shrinks your brain. The hippocampus is the part of your brain that, among other things, is responsible for turning off stress once the stressful situation is over. But an effect of stress on your brain is that cells in the hippocampus are targeted, and destroyed by cortisol – then, as we’ve said, new cells aren’t allowed to grow back. So the very part of your brain that is supposed to be helping you destress is getting smaller because you’re too stressed.
5. Toxins can access your brain. Your body is designed to protect the most important and most vulnerable parts of you, and that includes putting a blood-brain barrier around your brain to keep foreign contaminants out, while allowing nutrients in. However, stress pokes holes in the blood-brain barrier, so that chemicals, heavy metals, and other toxins have access to your brain.
6. Increases risks – and symptoms – of mental illnesses. Depression. Anxiety. PTSD. Schizophrenia. Even alcoholism and drug addiction. The physical changes chronic stress causes in your brain helps create and exacerbate all of these and more, up to and including suicidal ideation.
7. Causes inflammation. When you think of inflammation, you probably think of the swelling in an arthritic joint or the bump you got from the bee sting. And those count. But systemic inflammation is even more impactful. And when it happens in the brain, inflammation appears to be linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other serious diseases. Plus…
8. Impacts memory. Even without full-blown Alzheimer’s disease, an effect of stress on the brain is memory lapse. Those “senior moments” that make it difficult to keep track of where you put your purse, or even why you came into this room might be a direct result of being too stressed. To make it worse, stress also makes you more emotional, so you’re forgetful and upset.
9. Brain fog is real. You know how sometimes it’s hard to make a decision? It’s just too overwhelming, even when it’s a relatively easy choice. You’re not crazy and you’re not making it up. An effect of stress on the brain is that fog that seems to make it difficult to see clearly enough to make a decision. And yes, it really is worse the more important the decision is.
How to Minimize the Effects of Stress on the Brain
All of this is important, helpful information. But how do you stop it? After all, if it was as easy as taking a couple deep breaths, you’d have done that by now!
Luckily, there are ways to reduce the effects of stress on your brain…
1. Open up. For some people, the stigma attached to therapy prevents them from getting the help that they need. Don’t be one of these people. Finding a professional to talk to about what’s making you stressed doesn’t make you weak. It means you’re smart enough to find a professional to help you do a job. Trained therapists can help you identify and mitigate stressors that you may be struggling with.
2. Take control and set priorities. One of the most stressful situations is when you feel out of control. So take it back. Research indicates that feeling in control of one’s life is tantamount to reducing stress. Start your day by making a list of what you need to accomplish and make those steps your priority throughout the day. At the end of the day, review the goals you achieved and enjoy the sense of accomplishment. Having a hard time figuring out ways to take control of your situation? This is another great reason to find a therapist. They’re trained to help people identify ways to regain control and reduce stress.
3. Stay positive. As we’ve noted, an effect of stress on your brain is depression, mood swings, and being emotional. Under those conditions, it’s easy – it’s expected – to feel as if nothing can or will ever get better. Fight back by making the conscious decision to stay positive. Focus on accomplishments and achievements, not just failures.
4. Socialize and remember to laugh. Remember the old phrase “laughter is the best medicine”? Well, it’s true. Laughter really does reduce the levels of cortisol streaming through your system, so you feel better. Getting together with friends and loved ones also triggers feel good chemicals that help counter the stress ones. So, even if you don’t feel up to it, especially if you don’t feel up to it, call a friend.
5. Exercise. Remember we mentioned that stress kills brain cells, keeps new ones from forming, and shrinks your brain? Exercise can help counter that. You work out to build up muscle and to keep your heart strong. Now you can do the same for your brain!
6. Relax intentionally. While simply taking a deep breath isn’t going to undo all these effects of stress on your brain, making relaxation a priority will help. Consider a yoga or tai chi class. Other people may find meditation helpful. You may find a long walk, listening to quiet music, or a hot bath works for you. How you relax isn’t nearly as important as that you relax. Intentionally and deliberately.
7. Take DHA supplements. DHA is part of the foundation of a healthy brain. It’s believed to help reverse the effects of cortisol and stress on the brain. Ask your doctor about taking 600 mg per day of a high quality DHA supplement.
Let’s be honest – the effects of stress on the brain are scary. But they’re also avoidable.
Start taking these steps today, and feel better for a lifetime of tomorrows.